As we prepare to celebrate Christmas around the world in our own ways, here at History of Royal Women, we are also finishing up our Year of Queen Victoria which has been a fantastic series to write for all involved! During this series, we have shared a staggering 75 articles and over 70 journal entries and letters.
At this time of year, we are used to seeing many festive items, singing particular songs and eating certain foods which all carry feelings of tradition and nostalgia. It is therefore fitting, to round off our year of Queen Victoria by looking at where a few British Christmas traditions come from, as many stem from the Queen and Prince Albert’s love of Christmas and from the German customs of their families.
As a child, a young Victoria spent her Christmases with her mother and close family, often at Kensington Palace. The Palace was filled with decorations such as Christmas trees; this German tradition was first upheld in England by Victoria’s grandmother Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. In those days a Christmas tree was decorated with nuts, fruits and maybe a few candles and toys. Once Victoria had become Queen herself, her husband Prince Albert continued this tradition and imported yew and fir trees from his homeland which were brought inside and decorated.
Queen Victoria did not have many happy Christmas memories from her childhood, whereas Albert loved to celebrate Christmas and eventually Victoria found love for it too. Today we often think of Albert as being the one who made the Christmas tree popular in the United Kingdom as he filled Windsor palace with them and this soon spread throughout the land. In 1848, an image of the royals around their Christmas tree was published in The Illustrated London News. Within a few years of this, the Christmas tree had become part of Christmas for many people, and as time went on, they were decorated with colourful barley sugar sweets, gingerbread and little ornaments as well as lit up by candles.
It is not only the tradition of the Christmas tree that we have gained from the Victorian era, for example, Father Christmas before the Victorian era was part of English Folklore but had been much erased by the puritans in the 17th-century. Even after this, he was known as a figure of merry-making and feasting but just for adults. It was in the middle of Victoria’s reign that American and European traditions combined to create the idea of the Father Christmas or Santa Claus we know now as a bringer of gifts to children, this added a sense of magic to the old Pagan and Christian traditions of the season. The idea of Santa made Christmas more of a fun time to spend time with family, and for the first time, many people were even allowed two days off work to celebrate which meant there was more time for merriment and preparing delicious foods.
The foods enjoyed at Christmas changed as Victoria’s reign went on; in the earlier years in the north, people often ate roast beef for Christmas, and in the south they enjoyed goose. After being made popular by the royals and in fiction, however, by the end of the century, it was the turkey that sat on most Christmas tables. The poor were even able to save throughout the year by putting pennies aside with a goose club or a turkey club, and those without an oven at home would use the services of a local baker.
The industrialisation in the Victorian era is also to thank for the spread of Christmas ideas; due to the increase of factory labour and the circulation of printed news, ideas could spread faster, and certain items became cheaper to make. For middle-class families, this meant they could now purchase books and toys for their children for Christmas, whereas poorer children would get a small stocking containing an orange and nuts which was a great treat at the time. When postage costs were lowered in 1840, this also led to a new Christmas development which we now take for granted; the Christmas card. By 1870, once halfpenny post had been introduced and many more people were able to read and write, the sending of Christmas cards became an established tradition even for those who were less well off.
In 1846, another Victorian Christmas novelty was invented, just after the Christmas card. The Christmas cracker was created by Tom Smith, who was a confectioner, and the idea came from him wrapping his sweets in colourful packaging. This went on to him adding little paper hats, toys and a love note which people were thrilled by. Today we like our crackers with a joke inside and an added bang but the same excitement is still felt.
Of course, even with all of these new inventions and cheaper goods, there were always people who struggled at Christmas and were excluded from celebrations. Charles Dickens famously wrote about the plight of those in need in his beloved A Christmas Carol which was written in 1843. It was this work and reports by philanthropists that prompted the middle classes to give to charity and offer goodwill to all men during the festive period, a loving tradition which carries on to this day. Mr Dickens is also remembered as the inventor of the idea of the ‘white Christmas’, and this longing for a snowy Christmas still continues even though a cold December is not as common as it once was!
So, this Christmas Day when you open Christmas cards and gifts, pull a Christmas cracker, tuck into your meal, gaze at your Christmas tree and listen to traditional carols you can think back on how the Victorian era gave us many of these customs!
We hope you have enjoyed The Year of Queen Victoria and all of the other articles written this year by Moniek and the team at History of Royal Women. Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all who celebrate it, from Moniek, Brittani, Amy, Carabeth and all our other guest contributors.